Evocative and dreamy soundscapes on the debut album from Cardiff-based lo-fi alt-folk purveyors Muriel.
Release Date: 13th October 2023
Label: Venn Records
Formats: Vinyl / Digital
Welcome to the debut album from Cardiff-based lo-fi alt-rock explorers, Muriel. Muriel is the vehicle that allows frontman Zak Thomas to realise the visions and ideas that materialize as songs in what is, very evidently, a highly fertile and creative mind. Zak started to compose musical material whilst aged just 15, but it’s taken until now – with the help of a few friends – for him to put those ideas and visions into a releasable form.
Those friends – Rachel Crabbe on backing vocals, Andy Oliveri on lap steel, Will Davies on bass and Jamie Joiner on drums have added just enough warmth and colour to turn even Zak’s darkest lyrical and musical musings into dreamy – often almost pastoral – soundscapes and to add the spark of vibrant life that makes this debut album such a fascinating listening experience.
The songs on the album mostly came about following the unexpected death of Zak’s father. Grief and spirituality are constant themes throughout the album although Zak’s lyrics are often – but not always – shrouded in a veil of mystery. Of the impact that his father’s death has had upon the lyrical content of his songs, Zak says: “I’ve had distant family members pass, but this was the first close relative I’ve had that has died, and it truly changes you. I was, of course, extremely sad and going through the grieving process, but had this heightened sense of being so aware that this is going to happen to me and everyone around me, and as the circumstances of my dad’s death were not natural, that this could happen at any time.”
And, despite the grief that his experiences compelled him to express in his songwriting, Zak has also used those experiences to reinforce the knowledge that everyone’s time here is finite and that we really should strive to make the most of our time on Earth. And that’s a sentiment that sweetens the darker contemplations of the songs on the album.
Zak takes his songwriting cues from across the Atlantic – he quotes Sparklehorse and The Microphones amongst his formative influences – but he also recognizes that his native Welsh culture has infiltrated his psyche to a significant degree, as he explains: “I do think subconsciously there’s a lot going on between the two places and why I have gravitated towards these influences. [I grew up in a town where there weren’t many native Welsh speakers but] now that I’m living in Cardiff with lots of Welsh-speaking friends, and friends I know who play Welsh music, I do feel a yearning to explore my heritage and identity as a Welsh person.”
As a description of the music on Muriel, and of how it was built, Zak says: “I write songs relatively fast once I know it’s one I’m going to commit to. I love that process when I’m just on a roll creatively and I’m on my own and have nothing else to wait on or anyone to rely on. From the first song, I knew the project was going to be driven by nylon-strung guitars, so most of the songs started with a part written on my classical guitar, then I built layers and structure over them using similar themes of Midwest emo-inspired electric guitar parts, different time signatures and interacting layers.”
And it’s that nylon-strung guitar that is the mainstay of each and every track on the album – and Zak is a highly accomplished player, too.
Short intro track, Blue Village sets the atmospheric scene for the album. The acoustic guitar fades in and, as it’s joined by Jamie’s drums, the sound is almost ambient, in an endearingly lo-fi kind of way. The atmospheric feel is retained for Seaside Painter; a sparse backing of discrete percussion and the occasional bass-slide is all Zak’s strummed acoustic guitar needs. Like many of the songs, the lyrics are cryptic – “Two roads in line with the power of the ghost/ And the fight of the year/ It’s the sailor on the coast that says “Don’t bother me”/ He don’t want to know” – is an example, but the whole thing is dreamily pleasant.
There’s a bit more instrumental presence on Lavender By The Frames – in fact, it’s quite a poppy number – with a backing that’s relaxed but reassuringly solid. Rachel’s backing vocals are discrete yet enjoyable and the guitar solos are nice, in a dreamy, tinkly kind of way. Zak’s lyrics are just as cryptic and the song is lazily anthemic.
It’s on Relative that Zak’s lyrics emerge form their cryptic shroud and cut to the chase, as he confronts the emotions aroused by the news of his father’s death. Zak’s cracked vocal reflects the overwhelming sadness of the news, Rachel’s backing vocals are sympathetic and Zak’s guitar picking is exemplary. Relative is probably the album’s standout track – an assessment that Zak apparently agrees with.
Zak’s Lou Reed-invoking vocals are given a lower prominence than the deftly-picked acoustic and chiming electric guitars on the lo-fi Someone’s Coming In, before the music takes on a somewhat wider-screened feel for Passing Fields – another track that’s up there amongst my favourites. It’s the type of song that gets played on TV whenever the camera is pointed out of a train window. The band is in full-flow and Passing Fields would be one of the album’s more pastoral offerings, were it not for the inferred darkness in the lyrics, particularly in the references to the weeds that “always reappear…” Perhaps the loosest, jazziest, offering on the album is the semi-experimental Body Of Light. This time, the instrumentation – which takes prominence over Zak’s introspective vocals – alternates between spacy experimentation and straightforward folky rock.
Which leaves us with just the dreamy ambience of Walking Just To Walk to complete this interesting debut album. It’s a mash of repetitive guitar lines and crashing drums, with semi-obscured vocals contributing to the overall sound. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it’s a very appropriate ending to a uniquely different kind of album.
Watch the official video to Seaside Painter – a track from the album – here: